Mass Effect is a ginormous shiny new game for the X-Box 360 from Bioware. The basic mechanic is a mashup of Halo-style first-person space shooter, and sandbox-style RPG. The plot is not entirely free of structure, but if you want to you can play half of the game before ever even starting the third plot-obligatory mission. (And you have a choice of three possibilities for the third plot-obligatory mission, not all of which you need complete.)
Yahtzee hated it, for pretty much all the same reasons we adore it: it’s FREAKINHUGE, to the point where there is no possible way to explore all or even most of the content in a single run-through, it’s very very in-depth in story and character- which can cause a level of talkiness that can annoy even me and apparently made him want to shoot himself in the forehead, and it contains enough options for the customization and tweaking of your character and your character’s gear to satisfy all but the most psychotic tabletop RPG min/maxer. The actual plot of the game happens at about six places. The size of the game itself is exponentially larger, with far more optional side quests than obligatory ones, and more than that the designers went to incredibly anal levels of detail in fleshing out little aspects of the game universe’s backstory and the content of the galaxy itself. All of the planets in each system are examinable, and many of the planets that can’t even be surveyed have some entertaining bit of trivia attached to them. Some writing team very clearly had a lot of fun here, and more than that the writing team is equipped with an impressive store of astronomy: to the extent that can be accomplished given the game’s premise and setting, the physics is surprisingly well done, far more than was strictly necessary.
Like one of Bioware’s previous efforts, Knights of the Old Republic, there is a rudimentary good/evil system in place. The interesting thing is that, unlike KOTOR, it’s not truly a good/evil system, and it doesn’t require you to choose one path or the other. The system is “paragon” versus “renegade”; being an idealistic team player will earn you paragon points, and being an underhanded lone wolf sort will earn you renegade points. It’s far from perfect- it’s much easier to play paragon just because being a blatant hotheaded asshole too often will cost you more than it gains- but it is an improvement over a lot of these sorts of games in that being good is definitely not always the same thing as being right, and also in that it is entirely possible to rack up points in both columns in the same interaction depending on whether you play good cop or bad from moment to moment. (It also affects how much certain of your crew respects you or doesn’t- some aren’t too impressed with a straight goody-goody act and some will be horrified by the Dirty Harry approach.) Ultimately, the only thing paragon or renegade has a *direct* effect on is your ability to access bonus conversational options that play on your reputation and practice as a good guy or a bad one to give you a new (and usually better) way to end a confrontation. No matter if you play the heavy or the paladin, the basic story will still go the same way… but the details will be much different.
The combat is nicely flexible, with basic gameplay options giving you more or less control in exchange for difficulty- very much appreciated by me, because I HATE first person shooters and am no good at them, and appreciated by Stingray, who is the opposite. Beyond that, there are six different character classes, choice of which very much influences the combat experience, and some of which are better for some styles of play than others. (I chose the most tech-heavy class, i.e. the one that would allow me to take cover and fling debuffs at the enemy as opposed to going out and shooting everybody myself.) Very much helping the combat experience is the fact that the game AI for your own team is actually very good: your squadmates are very far from useless, and will make semi-intelligent decisions about which of their abilities to use and when entirely on your own, which is very nice when they notice the hostiles about to jump your ass from behind while you’re busy trying to figure out the best line of fire on the guy in front of you. More interestingly, often your squadmates will work much better or worse in certain combinations; both of us have developed favorite teams for different situations based less on the available pool of abilities than on the likelihood that the two crewmembers will play well with each other. The game recommends a “balance” of the three major ability classes (tech, biotic, and combat), but we long ago ditched trying to “balance” in favor of trying to find efficient team combinations- which often has nothing to do with “balance”. The squad AI does suffer from some irritating recurrent flaws- most notably the tendency to walk into your line of fire or hit you from behind- but it’s not a crippling one. The enemy AI is also good, with the game’s synthetic AI having the interesting feature of improving exponentially with the number of synthetics on the battlefield. Alone or in small groups, they’re stupid; as a large group, they’re frustratingly efficient. The organic AI is more even, with different groups being more or less difficult depending on the “type”. (Hint: the turian pirates are BASTARDS.) Enemy level scales to your level, so there’s no power-levelling in this game. As I said, I really dislike first-person shooters as a rule, but even I could appreciate the amount of the combat that became easier or harder depending on your tactical savvy; reflexes are not the key to victory here, deciding the most logical way to assault the enemy’s position is, and there’s usually more than one good choice.
I’ve seen the vehicle-based portions of the game criticized, but I honestly can’t imagine why; as this sort of thing goes, the armed rover-type vehicle they give you was one of the best I’ve ever played with. Different planets have different gravity levels and terrain types, which can make just driving around different places fun and interesting all their own. Maybe it’s just my lack of wider experience and missing out on truly awesome military space vehicle-age, but at least the Mako is much better than Halo’s Warthogs. Running over mercenaries was fun, too.
As for the much-vaunted romance subplots- you can see somebody’s bare butt if you successfully close the deal, oh boy- I’ll quote the Three Panel Soul guys: this is the only game I have ever played where it is possible to accidentally have lesbian sex. Too bad the “lesbian” was as annoying as she was, having the unique status of being the only crew character I disliked.
Basically, this is a first-person shooter welded to an RPG frame. If you are a first-person shooter guy that normally disdains RPGs, it is very likely that this game will annoy you, as it contains several exaggerations of elements that RPG lovers love RPGs for. You will be screaming “GET ON WITH IT!!!!” before you even get planetside, I promise. However, if you an RPG player that normally disdains shooters for all their twitch gaming and shallowness, you will probably adore this game. I know I certainly enjoyed playing an RPG that did not involve being in charge of a bunch of girls with huge swords, some of which are alleged to be male. This game is a lot closer to being Oblivion in space than it is to being Doom with customizable characters.